Children’s Emotions

The Secret to being an emotionally intelligent parent is how you interact with your child when they are experiencing negative emotions. Understanding or showing curiosity when your child is misbehaving helps you to discover the underlying emotions that need to be heard and honored.

This concept is based on recent research by Dr. John Gottman who states that love by itself isn’t enough. “We found that concerned, warm, and involved parents often had attitudes toward their children’s emotions “that got in the way … when the child was sad or afraid or angry. The secret to being an emotionally intelligent parent is how parents interacted with their children when emotions ran hot.”

Words of understanding, empathy and validation must precede words of advice. He discovered that children who had “Emotion Coaches” for parents were on an entirely different, more positive developmental trajectory than the children of other parents.

Being emotional does not equal being irrational. Emotions have a logic of their own. They are very real and help guide and instruct us. They foster learning and growth. The regulation of emotion comes from an understanding of that emotion.

Dr. Gottman and other researchers also observed that children benefit the most when parents themselves have a strong relationship. “In families where the parents aren’t living with each other or are not going to stay married, the parents can best help their children by minimizing their children’s exposure to destructive conflict. High levels of parental conflict create emotional distress in children and decrease effective parenting skills.”

Emotions like anger are a part of our human experience. When you are angry, there is a physiological arousal in your body. You feel a rush of adrenaline. You have a feeling of power in your muscles. You might even be aware of having an impulse in the form of a physical attack, such as a great desire to punch someone. Please understand that awareness of wanting to punch someone is not the same as the actual act of punching. It is perfectly acceptable to be aware of your impulses in fantasy and to know that you would not act them out in reality.

Here are some ways that parents typically respond to angry kids:

  1. Invalidation “You don’t need to be upset about something so little.”
  2. Blame “She wouldn’t have treated you that way if you’d been nicer to her.”
  3. Justification “You can’t always get what you want. Life isn’t fair.”
  4. Frustration “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
  5. Parental Anger “Stop doing that right now!”
  6. Rejection “Go to your room until you’re done crying.”

It’s easy for these word to slip out in tough times. The issue with these typical responses above is that none of them address the purpose of anger or addresses it effectively. None of the responses above convey understanding or empathy.


Here are what responses with empathy could sound like:

  1. Validation “You are upset. That makes sense to me.” (Note: You don’t have to agree with how she’s behaving, in order to understand her feelings.)
  2. Observation “You were trying to win the game, but she came in first.”
  3. Explanation “You were really looking forward to eating that cereal for breakfast and we didn’t have any left.”
  4. Understanding “This is tough.”
  5. Limit setting “It’s ok to be mad. I’m not willing for you slam the door.”
  6. Offering Support “What’s wrong? I’m here to help.”

Unless we respond with empathy our words might increase our child’s anger OR teach our kids to bottle up their feelings.

Anger can be a cry for help. It’s how we respond to the “cry” that matters.

As parents our job is to help our kids express their feelings–a beautiful rainbow of emotions–in ways that work for them and other people around them

Thanks to Cecelia Hilkey

A Slice of Life – Really Listening

Really Listening

Seven-year-old Billy begins to speak of a recent nightmare. “Dad, it was really scary. These monsters were out to get me. They are holding me upside down, over a cliff, and they were going to drop me over a thousand feet. I was…”

“Wait a minute, hold on Billy,” Dad cautions with a worried and condescending tone. “Did you have this bad dream because you saw that monster movie on TV last night?”

“I don’t know,” Billy cautiously responds. “It could have been…”

“The movie, Billy,” Dad says with another abrupt interruption, “was only make believe. There are no real monsters, not like those in the movie, that’s for sure.”

Billy looks at Dad, says nothing with his voice. His eyes sag downward and he resembles a balloon whose air has all escaped.

Dad senses that his logical argument is not doing the job. He digs deeper into his bag of persuasion. “You know that the movie was only make-believe, now don’t you?”

Billy knows what his dad wants to hear and he decides to go along with the program. Dad obviously has a big stake in convincing his son that the nightmare doesn’t make sense. Billy gives up trying to share his fears. Dad throws in one last stab of logic. “Besides, son, there aren’t too many thousand-foot cliffs. And there are none around here!” With that, Dad smiles down at his confused and silently angry son.

Billy dutifully smiles back. His forced smile is not all that convincing, but Dad accepts it. It’s the best he’s going to get from his offspring who has strong and contradictory feelings storming in his young boy.

What’s wrong with this scenario? Where had Dad messed up? What effect does Dad’s posture have on Billy?

Dad totally has dismissed what Billy really is talking about. The boy’s nightmare may have been triggered by a scary movie, but the dream is about the boy’s own fears. His dream and how he talks about it, if given a chance, is his personal code for his inner terrors and feelings. These feelings only can be expressed in symbolic and somewhat disguised form, precisely because they feel so threatening.

Billy is offering his father a glimpse into his young and fearful inner world. There is lots to be frightened about when one is so young. Contradictory feelings of powerlessness and omnipotence grip children. They are surrounded by a sea of large, often intimidating, adults. These giants can be real monsters!

A child, also, engages in much magical thinking. In their worlds, their wishes can produce results. Such omnipotence can be tremendously frightening, for example, their wish that mother gets hurt coincides with her accident. For the child, his wish caused the accident.

The child’s own destructive and angry impulses create much discomfort for him or her. It’s not good or right, children are taught, to have cruel or anti-social fantasies.

All this kind of inner turmoil can be expressed to parents if they will let their children talk. Billy’s father couldn’t tolerate his son’s anxiety. Therefore he crushed his son’s self-expression with logical and an attitude of intolerance, under the guise of reassurance.

The message that Billy got was, “Keep all this scary stuff to yourself. It’s too trivial, yet too upsetting, for Dad to. handle it. Act like everything is okay and it will be! Do a deceitful number on yourself and those around you.”

If kids are listened to for what they really are saying they will continue to confide in their parents. Most kids, however, get turned off from and by their parents. It even may have happened to you.


Thanks to  Jonathan J. Brower, PHD